Writing on the topic of suicide can have serious consequences for the reading public. Michael Mead Yaqub, Randal A Beam and Sue Lockett John, all of the University of Washington, interviewed 50 journalists in the United States about their awareness of and attitudes towards suicide, especially on risks related to reporting and US media recommendations.
Results show that journalists want to cover the topic responsibly, approaching it with considerable caution and consideration. Most of the journalists interviewed were aware of potential contagion effects.
Still, journalists often deviate from recommendations. The researchers found two main reasons for this. Firstly, professional routines and storytelling conventions may conflict with guidelines. Secondly, many journalists felt that they need to ‘tell the whole story’, against the public health communities’ recommendations of not disclosing certain information, such as method and place of suicide.
The researchers note the remaining differences between journalists and the public health community. The health community sees that a complex problem like suicide requires selective communication, offering specific solutions and responses. For journalists, this kind of communcation is at odds with the values of transparency and openness.
The journalists’ way of “writing the world as it is” is in this case potentially risky, the researchers state. How much should the obligation to transparency and disclosure should weight, if the stories can potentially endanger members of the public? they conclude.
The article “‘We report the world as it is, not as we want it to be’” was published in Journalism and is available online (abstract free).
Picture: Sunlit roots in the woods by Fabian Irsara, licence CC0 1.0